Urban Sprawl in Europe Report: Rewrite Needed

Republished by request

For any who perceive that “urban sprawl” (a pejorative term for suburbanization) is an American phenomenon, the new European Environmental Agency report Urban Sprawl in Europe: The Ignored Challenge provides a radically new perspective. Yes, there is suburbanization in Europe, and plenty of it. Regrettably, Urban Sprawl in Europe is far from an objective, comprehensive review of urban trends. It blindly repeats dogma and, most importantly, fails to consider the momentous advantages that the land use developments of the last one-half century have provided in Europe.

The Positive: Hysteria is Absent

Starting with the positive, Urban Sprawl in Europe generally uses muted language and is devoid of the hysterical theology so often found in anti-suburbanization reports in the United States, Canada and Australia.

Repeating the Dogma

Nonetheless, there are serious problems with Urban Sprawl in Europe. Predictably, the report finds all manner of problems with suburbanization and no benefits. The report repeats the dogma that has misled planners and public officials in the United States, Canada and Australia. For example:

• The report ways that traffic congestion is greater is less compact (more sprawling) urban areas. The international data, some of the of which is cited by Urban Sprawl in Europe says the opposite. More compact urban areas — what the European Environmental Agency would like, have more traffic congestion.

• The report says that air pollution exposure “may” be at higher levels in suburban areas because of higher volume and slower traffic. There is no “may” about it. Air pollution levels in suburban areas tend to be lower in suburban areas because traffic is less dense and it flows more quickly. While city versus suburban traffic data is difficult to obtain, San Francisco illustrates the greater traffic congestion that is evident in central cities compared to suburbs.

• The report claims that less compact urban areas are more costly, claiming higher transportation and infrastructure costs. The higher transportation costs are more than offset by much lower housing costs, a matter the report does not address. Infrastructure costs are not necessarily lower in more suburbanized areas, as Joshua Utt and I found in a reportpublished by the Heritage Foundation .

The European Model: Los Angeles

The report applauds Munich and Bilbao for being the only two urban areas studied that since 1950 increased their populations than their land areas. In effect, this means that Munich and Bilbao “sprawl” less in relation to their populations than they did in 1950.

The European Environmental Agency might be surprised to find out which urban area is the champion in that regard. It is Los Angeles, which managed to increase its population at more than double the rate of its increase in land area from 1950 to 2000. Moreover, during that period, urban development in Los Angeles was largely market, rather than planning driven.

The European Environmental Agency acknowledges that suburban low-density lifestyles are more attractive to people (so much for the theory that Europeans like high rise city living, while Americans, Canadians and Australians like the suburbs). Nonetheless, the report implies that it would be better for bureaucrats to make lifestyle decisions, not the people who are living the lives.

The Usual Absent Public Transport Vision

Predictably, the report complains about Europe’s automobile oriented culture. Just as predictably, the European Environmental Agency offers no vision that would get people out of their cars without seriously hobbling their mobility and quality of life. There is, of course, good reason for this. No such vision could be financed by any economy in the world (see The Illusion of Transit Choice).

Ignoring Economics

However, the most serious problem with Urban Sprawl in Europe is not what it says. The principal problem is rather what the report ignores.

Somehow, over the past 60 years, the Western European (and other high-income world nations) have suburbanized as never before and have embraced the personal mobility of the automobile. These developments that anti-suburbanites and the European Environmental Agency view as negative have in fact been associated with the greatest expansion of affluence in history — what I call the democratization of prosperity.

Urban Sprawl in Europe simply ignores the important issues of economics. Research indicates that personal mobility is associated with greater economic growth and the reduction of poverty. There is plenty of evidence that development of housing on less expensive land on the urban fringe has created wealth and played a major role in producing a comfortable middle class. These are issues that an intellectually honest and comprehensive discussion would include.

The Risks of Ignoring Economics

The failure to consider these issues is already taking a toll in urban areas that have blindly followed the anti-suburban pied pipers. Some urban areas have consciously sought to limit personal mobility and seen businesses locate to other urban areas. The urban areas of Australia and New Zealand, along with Portland and a number in California have so strangled their land markets by development controls that the (see Second Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Surveyhistoric relationship to incomes has been shattered. The result is that millions of future households will not be able to own their own homes or will have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more. This translates, at least in part, into consumer spending that will not occur, jobs that will not be created. United States Federal Reserve Board has published research showing that metropolitan areas with more stringent land use control experience less economic growth than would have been expected.

Revisions are Needed

Urban Sprawl in Europe would best be thought of as a preliminary working draft. Serious revision is required. The dogma needs to be replaced with objective research. Most importantly, the missing elements of economic impact need to be added.

Note: These issues are dealt with in greater detail in War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life, by Wendell Cox.

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